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Immigrants in Spain give up on European dreams

Failing economy drives reverse migration, encouraged by government incentives.

The ruthless, illegal ferry traders operating in north Africa and Spain charged Ibrahim 800 euros ($1,111) for the trip, a voyage undertaken in a flimsy boat with 85 other passengers. They left shore three times before making it to the Canary Islands. After he arrived, he studied Spanish from a dictionary, hoping to make a good transition into Spanish life. At the beginning, through odd jobs, he made enough money to take courses in economics. Then came the 2008 recession and a crackdown on illegal immigrants. In a Kafkaesque saga, he relates the difficulty of keeping his residency, with one set of papers after another demanded by various government agencies.

He has also begun encountering racism in the metro, Ibrahim said, with people sometimes yelling out insults. But generally, he has no complaints about his adopted country. “I can’t stay without a job though,” he said. “Ideally, I would go home. But it’s too dangerous. I only want to live in tranquility and work and send money back to my family.”

In many cities, immigrants of different ethnicities settle in their own neighborhoods and socialize with each other. Here in Madrid, they are apt to mingle. “I feel it’s important to stand with everyone in need,” said Ibrahim, as he set off for a rally in support of Bangladeshis detained in the Spanish city of Ceuta.

Jahid, 27, a Bangladeshi who arrived in Spain three years ago, goes out of his way to help other immigrants. In his free time, he volunteers at a community center in Lavapies, where people can obtain information on work permits, residence papers, jobs, free courses, legal aid, and medical services. Like Ibrahim, his journey to Spain was tortuous, after a flight to Niger from Bangladesh, through west and north Africa to Morocco, much of it on foot. Altogether, it cost him 10,000 euros (about $14,000), paid to various criminal organizations along the way. Jahid’s family put up the money, expecting him to eventually send funds home. He sold international phone cards until recently finding a job translating at an immigration center.

He tries to cheer up his countrymen. Climbing the broken, wooden stairs in a decrepit building in Lavapies, he said that eight of his friends live in two rooms on the top floor, all now without any source of income. They keep their space neat and clean; hang their clothes on a rack in a small hallway with their shoes stacked underneath. An ancient computer sits on a desk nearby. Four bunk beds fill the tiny, windowless bedroom, where a man lingered in the darkness, so depressed that he no longer leaves the apartment.

As visitors entered, the men gathered around a table, covered with a plastic cloth, eager to talk to outsiders. They offered pineapple juice and cookies.

“Everyone suffers in the crisis,” said Jahid, “but as immigrants we are alone without family to give us emotional support. The police strike out at us more because of the high unemployment. They think expelling us would ease tensions. My friends are afraid to even sell on the street. Police arrest them and take their goods. Many don’t go out because of fear of detention. It can be very lonely.”

Even though they would prefer to stay, many immigrants in Lavapies now feel obligated to return home. The men used to find jobs in construction and the women in care for the elderly, cleaning houses and working in the food industry. But “it’s tough now,” said Susana Ruiz, 25, who is from Peru and recently lost her position as a cashier in a supermarket. “People are looking for reasons to fire you,” she said. “I was out sick and my boss told me he had replaced me with someone more qualified.” She and her husband have had two children here and miss being surrounded by family.

At least her children live with her. Most of the older women have left children behind. “You never forget that you aren’t able to care for them,” said Lourdes de Maria, 35, who is from the Dominican Republic. “You worry about them growing up without you. But at least here if you don’t have clothes or shoes, there are places that will provide them, and food as well. That doesn’t happen in our countries.”

More immigrants may be choosing to return home now than ever before but, for reasons like those given by de Maria, it seems likely that others will soon take their places in Spain, no matter its troubled economy.

Many immigrants interviewed for this story asked that their last names not be used because they were concerned about their legal status or embarrassed by their circumstances.